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I was in a pool in Bali earlier this month and had just read the opening pages of Questions of Travel.

‘I knew that in four or five pages that this is a work of genius,’ I said to my daughter, as I floated on some child’s pilfered foam noodle, filled with the expansion and generosity that a holiday can bring. In those first few pages I saw what de Kretser was aiming for and it was ambitious: a large-canvas, social novel in the vein of Jonathan Franzen (don’t sneer, I like him); a novel of importance with big themes and beautiful writing. I had chosen the book with care. I was to be away for two weeks, I needed something big and meaty; something literary and ‘good’ that would entertain me and make me think. Often the best holidays morph into nostalgia that has a literary accompaniment, eg I read Franzen’s Freedom over three weeks the south of Turkey in 2010, and his The Corrections in Bali in 2011 (told you I liked him). I had chosen Questions from my pile of unread for the above reasons, as well as its heft and its fame (it had just won the Miles Franklin). I was a de Kretser virgin.

In the pool, with its horses and phalluses looming to the side (long story), I filled my daughter in on the apparent structure, that there were sections set in decades, alternating between what seemed to be two main characters emerging, but not regular or balanced necessarily. I had no feeling that de Kretser was being fair and equitable to two children like a parent who knows they favour one, and I liked this. I told my daughter how I thought these two initial characters, in different countries and with very different lives, would connect somehow.

‘Maybe they’ll meet. Maybe they’ll be love interests,’ I said, bobbing in the shallow end, noodle submerged in what we called the Swing Position. ‘She, one of the main characters Laura, I feel sorry for her. She needs some love. She’s so lonely.’ ‘Wouldn’t it be great,’ my daughter said, astride her own noodle in the Horse position. ‘What about if they didn’t meet.’ And she made her hands move above the water, two boats passing each other, close but no slowing, no touching. My daughter, I have to say, is brilliant.

I floated off in my swing, smiling, paddling to the edge. Would de Kretser be so cruel? I reminded myself of my admiration of how George RR Martin kills off his main characters often when they have barely ‘gotten going’ and thought: wow, if she does that, how amazing. Then I think: wow, if she doesn’t do that, maybe one day I’ll do something like that.

I think about the Miles Franklin short list; Mateship with Birds is the only other book I’ve read off the list and while I admired that book a lot, there was no question for me – even then, even with a few pages down – that Questions deserved the award because it was bigger and by that I mean more ambitious and more wide-ranging, and clearly equally as well written. But remember, I’m in Bali, I’m on holiday, sixteen days of this pool are ahead and I’ve only read the opening pages. How could I make such a sweeping prediction?

*

Questions of Travel follows two people: a young Australian woman Laura and a Sri Lankan man called Ravi. The chapters, or sections, alternate beginning in the 1960s and move through time (one of the first of the ‘travel questions’ the book houses) up to and including the early 2000s. Laura and Ravi have very different lives, of course, and they are very different people. Laura is a travel writer and Ravi works in IT. We see them move through their lives, intersect with family and friends; we come to know their dreams and desires. They are both of them sympathetic characters and de Kretser is funny and smart and the humour she gets in there helps to make me affectionate towards these people and want to spend time with them. De Kretser also made me see myself. We travellers all think we are so adventurous but we are just hamsters in a wheel. To whit:

She [Laura] climbed into an autorickshaw outside the bus station in Pondicherry and gave the driver the name of the guesthouse she had chosen. ‘Oh yes, madam. Number eleven.’ Thinking he had misunderstood, Laura repeated the name. ‘Yes, madam,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘Number eleven, Lonely Planet.’ Laura consulted the map in the traveller’s bible. The guesthouse was the eleventh item in the key.

It’s hard to have travelled and not blush at this passage, this mirror being held up to the reader. It’s a gentle nudging and you get the feeling de Kretser is not having a real go at people like yourself. Or you hope not. But you are placed in the experience of the book. And the people Laura meets are like the people we meet too. One, an Indian boy with cockney Jamie-Oliver inflection, talks to Laura, about the cricket commentators on tv, and then about something more intimate:

‘All lovely-jubbly and jolly fine shot. Pretending they’re English, innit?’ Then he told Laura that she could have sex with him. When she declined the opportunity, he produced his trump: ‘I do Tantric. Goes on, innit?’ Laura’s infinite letter to Charlie wondered if it would be a kindness to explain that the prospect of it going on only lowered his meagre chances.

This exchange is too funny and it reminded me of being a young Australian girl on a Marmaris beach in the south of Turkey, meeting local ‘Cheeky Charlie’ who had somehow acquired a Liverpudlian accent and ended all his sentences with ‘innit.’ Speaking to my soon-to-arrive younger sister on the public phone, and hopeful of being in with a chance (though no Tantric or going on was mentioned), Charlie handed the phone back to me, smiling after saying hello, and in the earpiece I could hear my sister laughing and saying ‘but he sounds like a Beatle!

In this way, Michelle de Kretser had me not only travelling with her characters, but making my own vivid forays back in time to destinations and people I’ve known over the years. It worth noting this magic is not effected by beautiful descriptions of scenery; no, it’s the characters and their exchanges and views and experiences – no matter how minor – that resonate in far deeper ways than mountains, seas or lakes. So not snapshots but stories.

De Kretser had me travelling, too, in my attitudes. One example of this was towards the end of the novel, when Ravi now in Australia displays evidence of what I saw as ingratitude. While these can be common signs of a dislocated person, and within the narrative there is trauma for Ravi, and also while I’ve had a lot of experience of working with homesick international students in the past and even lived myself overseas and struggled as a dislocated ‘foreigner’ in a far-away strange city, still I struggled with Ravi. He started to piss me off and I wondered whether de Kretser was being wonderfully and cleverly manipulative – I guess I’ll never know. When I started thinking things like ‘He’s being ungrateful’ and ‘what’s wrong with him’ and ‘doesn’t he know how LUCKY he is?’ even as I had those thoughts, I was making notes: wow, she’s this clever? People, I think she is.

Laura was often pitiable but always likeable. Not that this is ever essential for me to enjoy a character, but it was the case with her. I empathised with her struggles with her large body and her outsider status; even the typical backpacker accoutrements of weight loss (often thanks to the equation of bowels + new food = more output) and a tan don’t really do anything much for her. I was reminded of Hilary Mantel’s large-framed heroine Alison in Beyond Black, a woman in perpetual struggle with her body. Her shoes hurt, her clothes don’t fit, she is always wanting to eat something. It’s an experience that is only available to certain people in the world. (That may make it sound unintentionally exclusive and desirable. It’s not.) We see Laura gently rebuffed by men, most of whom approach her first, and most of whom are much older than her. (We also see Laura not be rebuffed by men, but it’s the knock-backs and her dreamy hopes that don’t eventuate that cause pain on her behalf.) People don’t tend to treat her particularly carefully. In one scene, she has a tomato seed stuck on her lip and the friend she’s eating with doesn’t say anything. The narrative tells us the friend, Tracey, has noticed it, but doesn’t tell Laura. This tells us more about Tracey than Laura herself and yet… and yet. Laura is friends with a woman who is so self-absorbed or uncaring or both that she notices something out of place on her friend’s face and says nothing, just continues talking about herself. Laura, however, is thoroughly decent, and we find this out in a few brief words when she and Tracey are both up for an art award and Laura shows her clean heartedness. I would have told her about the tomato seed and I wouldn’t have been so clean-hearted about the award.

This type of attention to detail could become overwhelming but de Kretser keeps her touch light. I found myself loving her writing and the story in the first half. It is lyrical yet compact yet wide and stuffed with detail. Each word is perfect with nothing over-blown or redundant. She locates the narrative well, in time with references to world events (the death of Kurt Cobain, the dismantlement of the Berlin wall, a Madonna song) but these are just simple references quietly flagging the time and don’t intrude into the action and don’t take you out of the story.

The language is great, the description at times superb and de Kretser never overwields this power (or rarely, there were a couple of instances when I went: hmmm. More on that later). Here she is describing a bed spread:

The sun, if it showed itself at all, entered Laura’s room in the late afternoon. It like up the scratches on the furniture, and the nylon fibres, each ending in a tiny ball, that quivered up from the peach-coloured spread. Even along the river or in the stripped parks, the low winter sun was baleful. Suspended in blueish vapours, it showed as round and red as the eye on a surveillance camera. It stayed half an hour, as if that were all it could bear to record of earthly iniquity. If Laura was present when it slid through her window, a headache threatened along her hairline. But as long as the corners of the room remained in shadow, she could almost believe it was a painting: a minor effort by a would-be Sickert, in which wallpaper and wardrobe mirror offered the same creepy green.

So in Laura’s room, even when her imagination is allowed to be free, the best she can conjure is a minor effort by a would-be artist; it doesn’t rate and this self-deprecation is part of what makes her such a sympathetic character.

And this passage:

Somewhat out of breath, Laura arrived at the summit of an icing-white tower. There she farewelled the city while vulgarly consuming a custard tart. When she dusted her hands of crumbs, it produced a flutter of sparrows. Far below, the Atlantic approached, slow as a slattern, to smear its great rags along the shore.

Whoever heard of an ocean edge being described as rag-like? It’s lovely.

There isn’t much dialogue and there is a lot of exposition, but I’m a reader who doesn’t mind a lot of telling as long as it’s done well. Reading de Kretser made me think of other writers who do the telling well, John Irving especially. She also reminded me of other novelists who write equally intellectually but who don’t have the same kind of heart and who don’t make the prose quite so beautiful. De Kretser’s lens is a macro one, the views panoramic rather than a hole punched through a piece of cardboard through which you see a circular and tiny slice of landscape and the mere parts of characters. Questions strives to show the whole of the everything (but carefully excised of cliché and predictability) and the themes are large too – travel, identity, place, the immigrant experience, technology and progress. And of course there are endless questions and examples of travel of all types.

While Questions of Travel is filled with the whole of the everything, somehow – by some magic or trickery – somehow this reader was given space to form many questions of my own, only different ones to what the book was asking explicitly. This was not a fault at all, quite the opposite.

The biggest question in this book, and often in any book, is the biggest question that we all have in life. What’s going to happen? More precisely, what’s going to happen next, and what’s going to happen in the end? For most of the book, this question was the one that kept me reading. Other types of questions were: Do the countries we grow up in allow for or deny us a type of innocence or naivety? Is travel only tolerable when solitary? Can the same be said for life?

Ravi is practical and realistic, whereas Laura has notions of romance. Ravi, though, is more knowing. He knows that he is attractive to the men who come to Sri Lanka for boys and it makes him swagger a little. Laura knows she is ugly, and that even her father finds her repulsive. She is kind-hearted and wants to keep in touch with a family in Bali, intends to write postcards, send money, help the children with their education. Who of us hasn’t had similar good intentions that went nowhere? The filled-out-but-never-sent postcard to new friends made on travels; the World Vision Sponsor Child supported for a year and then cancelled. Sometimes there’s more shame in these sincere attempts than there is in not bothering in the first place. Ravi is kind too, but he knows when he will and won’t see someone again, and even as he knows he won’t see one small character Roshi again, he feels that everything they said to each other was sincere. Later, though, Ravi meets a man who is on his way to work in Silicon Valley, and this trips Ravi into a fantasy that somehow, this IT-backpacker from Sweden will contact him and invite him to Silicon Valley to work. Laura is deluded about a gay friend, a delusion that is sustained for years. Who among us hasn’t had similar delusions, either of romance or of friendship, of our own ability or that of others? Of parental love or the appeal of self? These characters become vulnerable when we see them as real, or rather they become real when we see their vulnerabilities.

I was up to about page 150 when I made this note: ‘Main CHs could be seen as clichés – a perpetual Australian traveller who settles in London for a few years and an Indian IT guy – but they never really seem clichéd.’

*

About half-way through I started to disconnect a little from Questions. I kept up my listing of questions that arose, and made my notes, and I still read on very easily. Emotionally, though, I began to struggle with what I perceived as some sneaky melodrama. I felt some relationship circumstances weren’t resonant and therefore weren’t believable, and the humour seemed to have vanished. The world of the book became darker and while I don’t mind dark, in fact I like dark, I wanted to still have some light mixed with it. It’s like these days we are steeped in tragedy far beyond what we are designed for. In our villages in the old days, the amount of death and sadness that a person had to absorb and manage was on a far smaller scale. Now we are vulnerable to the world’s pain and I can’t take it anymore. This is why humour is so vital. And love, and heart and beauty.

*

By the pool, I read my daughter’s Year 11 literature handout. It’s a couple of essays on the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska and a collection of some of her poems. Included was this passage in a New York Review of Books article: ‘when the tragic manner becomes predictable, freshness of perception and language are lost.’

This was a good articulation of how I felt about some of the events in the Sri Lankan narrative thread of Questions of Travel. It made me realise I wasn’t imagining things and that it was to do with something that had become predictable.

By the pool, my daughter also has a slim volume of three Chekhov plays. She’s a good IB girl, doing her homework. I pick it up and read the introduction. I read about Gogol’s view on melodrama versus the day-to-day true lives that are all most of us experience.
I know there can be drama even within the smallest of life’s realities yet melodrama is different. I am surprised by what I read, and how neatly it fits with my thinking. Gogol believed that the stage had been corrupted by the:

monster… melodrama … where is our life, ourselves with our idiosyncrasies and traits? … Only a great, rare, deep genius can catch what surrounds us daily, what always accompanies us, what is ordinary – while mediocrity grabs with both hands all that is out of rule, what happens only seldom and catches the eye by its ugliness and disharmony… The strange has become the subject-matter of our drama. The whole point is to tell a new, strange, unheard-of incident: murder, fire, wild passions… poisons. Effects, eternal effects!

Gogol wrote this famous denunciation of theatre in Russia in 1836. On the subject of what he focused on in his plays, Sam Shepard once said something like: ‘Family. What else is there?’ I have never forgotten that. I want to emphasise, though, that the biggest most melodramatic event in the book is handled well and is scaled back and what must have been rich temptation is well resisted.

*

Usually, I like writers who are smart and have beautiful prose and characters I can care about. It’s rare to have these elements balanced in the one piece of work. And if a novel’s success can be measured by the idea of how much truth it makes you feel or see or know, truth about self and truth about others, then Questions of Travel succeeds. It’s a little too long, like this review, dang it, but it does attempt to traverse whole lives, and not just one or two but many. And it goes deep. Broad and deep. I’m very much looking forward to reading other novels by Michelle de Kretser.

questionsoftravel

From the book’s back-flap: Michelle de Kretser was born in Sri Lanka and lives in Australia. She has taught literature, and has also worked as an editor and a book reviewer. Questions of Travel is Michelle’s fourth novel. Published by Allen & Unwin, 2012.

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